#148 Evolving Capability to Manage Bias


Zac suggested today’s topic because it seems like something that frequently gets talked about on big podcasts and we are not convinced everyone is nailing the topic on the head.  Today is all about something we collectively need to get our acts together on… being biased. Last week Zac was reading an article in Harvard Business Review on the subject and was drawn in by its logic and ideas. But, as we always find with a bit deeper examination, there is more than meets the eye.

The article is working on a subject, or one slice of a subject, that is in the news regularly, and yet, it falls into the “better than the bad stuff,” category.  It is not really what will make the deep difference. The article is titled, “How the best bosses interrupt Bias on their Teams.” It is In Harvard Business Review November/December Issue 2019 by Joan Williams and Sky Mihaylo. And they did a podcast on Harvard Idea cast also entitled “a new way to combat bias at work.”

What drew Zac in and what made him want us to examine it?

He had a hard time pinning down exactly how, as a manager you might navigate your own biases. Instead it felt like you would be armed with tools to make other people fight some kind of an abstract bias war for you. Also the ultimate goal of all these approaches seemed to be better performance and broader ideas. For Zac, those seem like means rather than ends.

Carol’s reflection on first reading was that the ideas offered would certainly disrupt bias business actions that have become pervasive in life. But not their thinking.  Once applied to our Living Systems frameworks, increasing what you can see, it left too much on the table and missed the path that serves not only the underlying causes here, but missed serving the broader opportunity in a more effective way.

This HBR article seeks to help create outcomes for diversity and inclusion, but it externalizes impacts in the business and society. In other words, it leaves negative impacts for others to handle. It stops short because they don’t work on consciousness and capability to be more discerning, but only on norms and acceptable behavior.

Settling for Satisfactory

Just to make it clear, the change in behavior can do much of what they suggest. But it is like using 20th century technology on a 21st century device. And therefore producing incremental improvement when radical steps are needed given what we see in society, our political system and social justice system. We have referred to that approach as ‘satisficing’ in the past. Where you settle for something that is better than the bad, but without using the thinking that works more essentially to make a real difference.

The authors noted that you don’t need to work on how people think, but you just change the behavior by management actions and requirements. This reminds us of Sam Harris’ podcast where he interviewed Daniel Kahneman, who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow and won a Nobel Prize for his work on cognitive biases. In that podcast, Sam asked him what he’s learned about himself by using his own bias research on his thinking. He said he hasn’t and doesn’t because he believes it’s hopeless and we’re all subject to biases so why try. This is the definition of a fixed mindset.

Instead of seeing potential for thinking capabilities to be built, its a problem to be solved “out there”. This doesn’t really change society more comprehensively but instead works on what can see and manage. But the workers leave work and vote and sit on juries and engage in social context where their biases still exist.

Plus the benefits of working on the mental shift needed with workers becomes conscious of their bias which benefits the entire businesses in other ways and arenas. This approach is a ‘bucket approach’ to change. This is our bucket to work on e.g. diversity and inclusion; and we only pay attention to that which is our bucket. But the problem is not limited to that bucket. The foundational challenge limits human progress, business and elsewhere, pervasively. That is the ability to manage our inner processing and the cognitive biases that control it.

Approach of Behaviorists

The approach of behaviorists is often narrow, since it requires a direct action for a specific path to a specified goal.   With a more complete approach, we can do more and better by developing people in a more comprehensive way. Plus, we are doing this by managers managing their targeted audience, define the maze that is allowed. E.g. The manager requires more candidates as a  percentage of gender and race, and you will have a better likelihood of hiring women and people of color. That is a good outcome at least.

And why just define the maze and run them through it? Why not give people the capability to see the maze they are in and how to become reengineers, so to speak, of mazes in their own mind. Then they can see it in how they do, not only in diversity questions, but ecological choices, and product design. The biases are actually pervasive, and this is only one place it shows up.

The authors justify this by saying bias is “devilishly difficult to eliminate” so you don’t have to deal with that, they argue. Instead, you can interrupt it. It is seen as a behavior problem not a capability problem for people to see their own mental bias making machines. Building capability in this arena would make us better humans in all walks of life. We need to learn to manage that process in ourselves, by ourselves, and not by being managed by others who are trying to get us to perform in a prescribed way.

Basically, it’s taking the behavioral paradigm into the ‘do good’ paradigm by trying to modify behavior toward doing the right thing. But if we don’t shift the mental capacity of each human to see themselves and not be managed for their own good, we are still rats in a maze— but for good causes.

So what do we do?

We use the evolve capacity paradigm and not the behavioral paradigm to work on this. We shift from an outside source to manage us, in this case ‘management’ who require particular mazes be designed and followed, to design Schooling for the mind. This is not an abstract idea or too much work on something that is difficult. It is only difficult because we don’t see it as a capability challenge. We see it behaviorally and think there has to be incentive and reward which seem illusive.

A Regenerative Paradigm and how it is an “evolve capacity paradigm”

It is educating everyone on changing how they work, every day, on every subject, and adding capability exercises into every task. It improves all business practices including financial effectiveness. It takes about a year to get it familiar and about 3 to embed it into how all work is done. And by then it is starting to spill over into how we engage our families and in social endeavors and discourse.

Where do you suggest people start?

First you introduce reflection into any activities and events, drawing on frameworks that serve to help each person examine what is going on in our mind in relation to a super concrete subject.

We use something called modes of mental behavior. For individuals to examine themselves. But don’t use on others, never one another. This is based on the premise, that we all tend to be on automatic and react from ‘stuck patterns’ that have not served us well for years, but we can’t see them. Racial and gender bias is just one place we are an example of bias. We are a huge bundle of biases from our deeply ingrained patterns of thought, unexamined.

In other words, the authors miss the point that we are biased toward some thoughts and patterns of thoughts on almost every subject and every work practice.  They are unlikely to have ever been examined for their accuracy, much less whether they produce what we want. Instead, we argue with others over how important they are and do what’s called “steelmanning” our biases with logic…at least in our head.  So how do we stop that?

We can begin to question them, for example, using a framework that looks at three lines of work, which is looking at actions going three rings out. So for our actions (words, our decisions, deeds) ask, “ what is , or likely to be, the results from all perspectives?” Not just our own, of those who are touched. So, “What is the likely outcome of that for them?”  And finally, “what is the likely effect on that on our family, longer term, our society, our democracy?” and as far as we can think at that moment. We are not used to this nature of impact consideration. Make is a habit in the organization to use such a framework.

Most people are surprised, especially well-intentioned people, many who run or work in mission/purpose driven businesses, that their own good intentions, and resulting actions, are unexamined and are not producing the effects they intended, on society  and democracy, and the business itself. And they are working on big questions like climate change but are limited by their unexamined assumptions and following what they adopted a long time ago from others, also unexamined by the others.

That seems to be one of the biggest reasons for learning to utilize living systems frameworks as we develop thinking on a subject of work. It’s about working on my thinking as I’m working on an idea. This often leads to new perspectives and approaches we wouldn’t have considered by automatically adopting or dismissing the idea.

If we use them well, they support us in disrupting bias at its source. Our thinking process. And the examiner is the individual, who is able to exam themselves.  We are in charge of seeing the bias, that which limits us. This way makes the shift much faster and deeper. And is amazing and simple to institute.

Zac’s experience with examining biases or automatic thinking?

We have one framework that is in your new book, The Regenerative life, that lets us look at inner obstacles which lets me find my biases. And this one can be painful.  Essentially it helps me to look at energy drains, or where my thinking has me leaking energy like a boat with holes in it. The one we fall into quite often is Subjectivism. This is the process where we lose connection to the relativism that rationally exists in the universe. This causes me to believe that I, (or humans in general) are central to existence. One way to approach this is by asking what is the whole I’m trying to work on or contribute to in this moment? We immediately become or much larger systems at work here beyond just myself or human made systems.

Soon you realize it is helping you be more productive because you are eradicating wasted effort, poor mental processing and replacing with higher leveraged change processes. Not issue based change one at a time. And more conscious humans who are self-developing.

What the authors of this article don’t understand, is that they are contributing to the problem of keeping human’s thinking and biases hidden from them by using a behavioral approach. For example, some manager examines a situation, e.g. diversity in the workplace – and comes up with a more ideal form * which we agree is urgent and important; that is to become more inclusive in hiring and promoting. But the managers then build the maze to modify behavior and rob people of seeing their own bias and through teaching them to examine it.  People think it is faster to push people into new habits. It’s not action that’s needed, but thinking shift in capability.

The authors take the slow way; we modify their behavior based on the problem being defined and set up the model or maze. The fast way and lasting, more pervasive way, is to teach people to do this for themselves. And then they learn not just for this circumstance, at work,  but begin to see it in their whole lives. We see it over and over. People see themselves and gain the will to change. As most individuals and the leaders of business teams report, who work this way say, “it changed my life because it changed my capability to change myself, see myself and support others learning to do that for themselves.” Further,  then it happened in places we did not even see needed this bright light before. We switched from doing good to evolving capacity to see our biases, our mechanical thinking patterns.”

The benefit of engaging an organization, ongoingly and ubiquitously in this developmental practice.

  • First, you are getting smarter and smarter people who cannot be fooled by themselves or others.
  • They learn to see their customers and consumers more clearly without their internal and inner biases which lead to bad design choices and sales pitches that fall flat.
  • They learn to see reconciling path’s through seemingly intractable, polarized situations.

In addition, we  promote an educated citizenry  who participates in democracy. This is a corporate responsibility and has more encompassing effect than does create a new maze, that gives us some movement on inclusion. Important, but thinking too small. The developmental way changes minds because it changes consciousness of our mental models, mental patterns. This is reported repeatedly in business. And why we developed a comprehensive technology of how to do this across all domains, subjects and persons. Only a few don’t get it.

In summary- our examination of this article

The authors are on to some important subjects. But to move from a behavioral approach to doing good, is not enough. We have to step up to an evolve capacity paradigm, beyond a maze based on the manager’s ideals. And to do that,  it need not be a maze or model developed by managers or experts. Or a model at all. It needs to be a cross functional team leading it and using the reflective process we are speaking of here, so they are building capability to see biases that are like blinder of all kinds on many subjects and domains. They carry over from one to another. We want to make it a developmental effort with living systems frameworks’ like we strive to do. And personal inner reflection.

It would be great if all such well-intended efforts be less fragmented by subject. Which becomes embedded with bias themselves and promote more external management by a hierarchy and group of elite specialists. We want this to be the scope of corporate responsibility by each new subject. It is all the same blinder. It is not a list of things to be certified on. Not fair trade, or supply chain responsibility or climate change mitigation. It is automatic thinking and all the toxic practices and limited paradigms. Being a Regenerative organization means doing the foundational evolving capacity work, not the subject by subject issue efforts. It will be faster, easier, cheaper, and have a broader effect.



There are many resources to help develop the mind that can see and work with the Regenerative paradigm which we used to speak to in this episode’s article.   You can use them for how to assess and help you overcome the challenges of less than a regenerative paradigm, especially the tendencies toward projecting one group’s ideals onto another group, the creation of abstractions that  lead to generic solutions and further degenerative practices, hidden from us.

We have a unique way to help with Free Regenerative education. Through The Regenerative Business Prize. Nominations are now open for The Regenerative Business Prize where get free Regenerative education and reflections from our panel of reviewers on your business’s integrity with the 7 First principles? Look for the Prize tab on The Regenerative Business Summit website. Submissions are open from now until the end of march. The timetable is on the Summit Webpage, download the Rubric from the prize page and learn about how to avoid Greenwashing with your good deeds and offerings.

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